Should College Be Free? Experts Pick Sides
Reducing the cost of higher education was among the most popular policy concerns during the 2016 presidential primary season, and it’s obvious why. Roughly 43 million Americans collectively owe more than $1.3 trillion in student debt, according to data from the Federal Reserve, and the average graduate now leaves campus owing approximately $37,000. Politicians who propose making higher education either free or debt-free are therefore singing to a very large and collectively powerful choir.
But are they right? Yes, we are facing a student-debt crisis, which serves to delay borrowers’ financial maturation and thus stifle economic activity. Fifty-two percent of young adults with student debt say the burden has affected their ability to buy a car, according to a 2016 survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, while 55% report that it has hampered their ability to purchase a home and 62% say it has forced them to delay saving for retirement. But the federal government already faces a $590 billion budget deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and news reports indicate that 16 states are currently spending above their means, as well.
So who is supposed to foot the bill for all of this free education? And is it fair to force older taxpayers to pay to educate the young after shouldering their own educational burden without such assistance?
Given the complexity of this issue and the many competing interests it brings to bear, we invited a panel of experts on student loans, educational administration, political science and public policy to weigh in. We asked them a single simple question – “should college be free?” – and received insightful, nuanced responses providing analysis from diverse perspectives. You can check out all of the commentary – including 4 Yes votes, 14 Nos and 2 Not Sures – below. And make sure to share your thoughts on the subject in the Comments section, too!
Why College Should Be Free
- "I would make college free for those who wish to pursue a degree in teaching. However, the individual would have to commit to teach in a high poverty school for 3-5 years in order to provide a return on the investment.
I would make college free for students who demonstrated a significant financial need. However, the students must demonstrate through a solid high school performance that they were college and career ready."
Terry Holliday // Board Chairman, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
- "Our citizens cannot expect future prosperity without having an open door to higher education. Community colleges provide that door, and free community college tuition is the most secure way to keep it wide open. We hail all federal, state and local actions that would turn this vision into reality. And we are encouraged that in an increasing number of places, that is in fact the case."
David S. Baime // Senior Vice President, Government Relations and Policy Analysis, American Association of Community Colleges
- "Despite the Clinton campaign’s post-primary drift leftward on the issue of college affordability, her current proposal falls short of the systemic reform that the times demand. Universally free public higher education with no means-testing whatsoever ought to be on the table. ...
Under a truly universal system, the number of wealthy students the system would be 'wasting' money on pales in comparison to the amount we waste on the administrative costs and hurdles involved in need-verification. Even with an assumption that some wealthy people would benefit, the advantages of eliminating financial means-testing would still overwhelmingly fall to the working and middle classes."
Adrianna Kezar & Tom DePaola // Researchers in Higher Education, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern Carolina
- "Paying for college with debt increases economic inequality. Students that graduate without debt reap great economic benefit from a higher education because they get all of the rewards of pursuing a higher education with none of the risks associated with the debt or any bad choices they might make. For everyone else – an ever-increasing share of those going to college – it is a crap-shoot. ... If we want to make America stronger together (or greater again, depending on your political persuasion), we must make higher education free again."
David A. Bergeron // Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
In the Reagan-era, the passage of the obscure Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990 (FCRA) helped the nation become addicted to paying for higher education primarily with debt. The FCRA required that the lifetime net cost be paid in the year in which the loans were made and, from a budgeting perspective, made loans cheaper than grants.
But paying for college with debt increases economic inequality. Students that graduate without debt reap great economic benefit from a higher education because they get all of the rewards of pursuing a higher education with none of the risks associated with the debt or any bad choices they might make.
For everyone else – an ever-increasing share of those going to college – it is a crap-shoot. For those in debt and no degree, the prospects are the worst. They receive none of the rewards of a college education but must repay their student loans. For those who successfully completed a degree program but owe a lot in student loans, it largely is a question of the quality of the credential and the field of study. If they attended a first-rate institution and received a degree in a high demand field, they’ll do well. For everyone else, it depends.
And that’s the problem. It depends on decisions about where to go to college and what to study that a prospective student makes with less than perfect information and no ability to predict the future.
Truth be told, society overall will always benefit from the cumulative impact of higher levels of educational attainment. Even those that don’t go on to higher education benefit from increases in productivity and in earnings because of those that do.
If we want to make America stronger together (or greater again, depending on your political persuasion), we must make higher education free again. My colleagues and I released our plan for debt-free higher education in February 2015, and called for a new college compact to increase accountability and improve our nation’s return on investment resulting from higher education.
As a society, we pay for what we value. So, do we want to be known as a society that values prison more than education? It’s time to recommit to restore a free public higher education opportunity available for future generations of the greatest country on earth.
I would make college free for those who wish to pursue a degree in teaching. However, the individual would have to commit to teach in a high poverty school for 3-5 years in order to provide a return on the investment.
I would make college free for students who demonstrated a significant financial need. However, the students must demonstrate through a solid high school performance that they were college and career ready. College ready would require high school grades and/or college placement assessments that demonstrate the student is ready to enter a credit bearing course. Career ready would be measured both by academic readiness and technical readiness. The student would be required to make acceptable progress each semester in order to maintain the college free status.
A free college experience is well within reach for many students today, however, too often, students and parents are not taking advantage of financial assistance and scholarship applications. A key strategy should be to make the financial aid application much easier to complete.
In summary, college should be free for some students, but these students should be held accountable for making acceptable progress. The bottom line will be that students who complete a college experience will be more likely to contribute to society and more than repay society through taxes and less drain on social systems.
The community college perspective on providing free tuition starts with recognizing that some college education, and in most cases a formal academic credential (though not necessarily a 4-year degree), has become necessary for full participation in today’s economy. Reams of data show that fewer and fewer jobs paying family sustaining wages are available to those with only a high school diploma. Our economy has become part of a world-wide economic system that can be unforgiving to those who lack requisite skills.
Proponents of free community college tuition such as AACC believe that it would dramatically enhance postsecondary educational attainment. This would occur through two mutually reinforcing dynamics: helping students meet the costs of college, and communicating loudly and clearly that college is available to all. Just like high school.
First, student financing. With average annual full-time tuition and fees of $3,435, community colleges are by far the least expensive sector of higher education. Despite this, millions of people cannot afford to enroll and persist without substantial financial assistance. Nearly 40% of all community college students qualify for federal Pell Grants, the government’s primary commitment to helping financially disadvantaged postsecondary students. Pell Grants help students pay for tuition and meet other expenses such as books, transportation and living expenses. But even with these grants, more than one-third of all full-time students take out federal loans, which often create payback challenges.
Second, free community college would send a resounding message throughout the nation that a college education is available to all, regardless of their resources or previous educational experience. Such an action would echo the post-World War II GI Bill, under which millions of veterans who never dreamed of attending college were suddenly given the means and encouragement to do so.
Community colleges enroll a disproportionate number of low-income, first-generation, academically underprepared, and underrepresented minority students. These are largely the types of students who would particularly benefit from a no-tuition policy. We especially support a “first dollar” framework, in which students are able to apply their federal student aid and other aid for non-tuition expenses.
Opponents of free community college will cite its cost, or raise issues with its broad-based subsidies, or note that college costs extend far beyond tuition. They will also assert that community colleges are not the only route to a college education in America. However, community colleges remain the most viable onramp for the millions of Americans who need a college education but may not otherwise attain it.
Our citizens cannot expect future prosperity without having an open door to higher education. Community colleges provide that door, and free community college tuition is the most secure way to keep it wide open. We hail all federal, state and local actions that would turn this vision into reality. And we are encouraged that in an increasing number of places, that is in fact the case.
Maintaining a means-testing regime is itself costly and tends to only keep out people (of color, disproportionately) that actually do need the aid but end up deterred by the complex financial disclosure requirements or rejected on a technicality. Means-test apologists typically fall back on the “common sense” argument that we should not be paying for the children of wealthy elites to attend free college. This argument is a distraction. Free tuition will by and large not impact the comparatively low number of rich families sending their kids to public school. Children in wealthy families typically attend private institutions. Under a truly universal system, the number of wealthy students the system would be "wasting" money on pales in comparison to the amount we waste on the administrative costs and hurdles involved in need-verification. Even with an assumption that some wealthy people would benefit, the advantages of eliminating financial means-testing would still overwhelmingly fall to the working and middle classes.
Accepting income requirements uncritically as a kind of necessary evil misses the contradictions that arise in practice. If the point is to make sure we are being cost-effective and providing resources to those who genuinely need them, means-testing is counter-productive; it siphons resources that could otherwise be used to expand aid, and the students it hurts are most often those it was designed to assist. Finally, consider on some basic level that an occasional subsidy to the rich is a tolerable cost for the opportunity to fully enshrine higher education as a public good and energize efforts to fulfill this mission accordingly. Moreover, if this move could be funded through progressive tax reforms, the aggregate amount of subsidies going unproductively to the rich would be greatly reduced. Need-based aid, regardless of how precisely it is targeted, reinforces a stigmatized view of public goods as essentially handouts for people that have failed to provide for themselves (a fairly generous paraphrase of the position). Half-measures of universality like means-tested aid sustain moralizing rhetoric about the deserving and undeserving poor, and render the whole arrangement structurally vulnerable to cuts during budget crises -- real or manufactured -- as well as outright partisan attacks.
While people sometimes draw inspiration from German and Scandinavian models known to operate this way, often overlooked is the fact that those systems have other mechanisms of stratification due to rampant levels of primary and secondary school tracking. Only about a third of the population is ever academically eligible to attend by the time they finish high school. The negative effects of this are partly blunted, however, by the fact that these countries still have strong labor unions that can better protect non-college-educated workers, (at least relative to the US). The lesson for us is that a push for universal higher education would have to be wedded to intensification of efforts to combat tracking and under-resourcing at the primary and secondary levels, especially throughout implementation, or the social returns could evaporate. We also cannot understate the need for an accompanying progressive tax overhaul. In short, if we seek to meaningfully transform conditions of equity in higher education, we need to push for solutions that are powerful enough to actually move the needle, rather than simply placate voters for one more election, or the situation is likely to regress further. A policy of true universality would establish a durable foundation of success from which justice struggles in every social domain could draw strength and continue to build. But to get there we have to suspend our "common sense" biases around the value of means testing or free-riding wealthy students and have the critical discussion the issue deserves. It is high time we supported higher education as a public good in terms of dollars not just rhetoric.
Why College Should Not Be Free
- "The more the government provides the funding for college, the less reason school administrators have to minimize costs. For many years, college tuition and related expenses have been rising much faster than the rate of inflation, and that’s largely due to the fact that government has been heavily subsidizing attendance. If college were 'free' administrators would have even less reason to keep expenditures down."
George Leef // Director of Research, John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
- "While I don’t believe that college should be free, I do believe that state leaders would be wise to make it very affordable for their citizens. The fact is an educated citizenry is the number one most important factor in a state’s economic viability. The easiest way for policymakers to address this problem within their state is to look hard at their community college systems."
Mary Scott Hunter // President Pro Tem, Alabama Department of Education
- "There’s no evidence that cheapening college yields anything other than a cheapened college experience. Imperfect, to be sure, but market forces currently provide information about the value of a college education. An expensive four-year degree often signals an education earned from a prestigious institution where great value is placed on what was learned there; conversely, a bargain-priced degree from a cut-rate campus commands little in terms of respect, signals inferior learning, and has comparatively lesser value in the marketplace."
Gregory J. Cizek, Ph.D. // Guy B. Phillips Distinguished Professor of Educational Measurement and Evaluation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- "Advocates of 'college for free' often couch their arguments in social justice terms, arguing that until the most disadvantaged in our society have the same access to college as the most advantaged, equality is not possible. While I agree with this sentiment, making college free works against this very ideal, as it makes it possible for higher-income students to draw from the same (limited) pot of subsidies as low-income students, thus reducing the total amount of money available to help those who need it most."
Carrie B. Kisker, Ph.D. // Director, Center for the Study of Community Colleges
All government can do is to shift the costs away from the immediate users (students and their families) and put them on others. That’s what politicians mean when they promise “free” college – other Americans will pay.
Let me suggest five reasons why doing that would be a bad idea.
First, people usually devote less care to anything they get for free than to things they have to work and pay for. Someone who is parting with his own money in exchange for education or training is apt to take it seriously, whereas someone who is being given it is far more apt to goof off.
Over decades, the amount of effort American students devote to their coursework has steadily fallen, and now many admit that they’re in college mostly for fun. A key reason for that change is that less and less or the cost of college has come from their own work and/or family savings.
Second, the more the government provides the funding for college, the less reason school administrators have to minimize costs. For many years, college tuition and related expenses have been rising much faster than the rate of inflation, and that’s largely due to the fact that government has been heavily subsidizing attendance. If college were “free” administrators would have even less reason to keep expenditures down.
Third, “free” college would probably mean more young people getting degrees, but that contributes to another problem, namely credential inflation. Now that such a high percentage of Americans has some college credential, employers have taken to requiring job applicants to have degrees even for work that calls for nothing more than basic high school skills.
Because college is largely a “positional good” showing an individual’s superior capabilities, putting more young people through college will only lead to higher credentials being necessary to accomplish that. “Free” college would merely fuel this credentialing arms race, leading to further waste of time, money, and resources.
Fourth, “free” college would put further downward pressure on academic standards that have already been falling, mainly due to current college subsidies. Making college free will increase the numbers of students, but most of those additional students will be very marginal academically. When professors have to accommodate weak and disengaged students, they water down the rigor of their classes, inflate grades, or both.
And fifth, if college becomes “free” that would put government officials in position to dictate curriculum, standards, rules, policies, and everything else. Government funding always comes with strings attached. Higher education is already too politicized and this would make it more so.
First, even asking the question of “Should college be free?” reveals an egregious lack of basic knowledge about economics (or, perhaps, the knowledge about economics acquired from a free college!). College can never be free: someone will be paying for it. I assume that my colleagues in the academy would not teach without compensation; administrators won’t be administering pro bono; college buildings will still require maintenance and other capital expenditures; university libraries will still need to purchase books, digital resources, and so on.
The real question then is “Should someone else pay for college?” That is, should the financial burden be shifted from users (e.g., students, families) and philanthropies that provide scholarships, and so on to society more broadly, based on the argument that college is a general social good? Presumably, one suggestion would be that the burden would be redistributed as a tax — possibly a tax only on the tenebrous “wealthy” or perhaps a more broadly distributed tax.
Which leads to a second point. There’s no evidence that cheapening college yields anything other than a cheapened college experience. Imperfect, to be sure, but market forces currently provide information about the value of a college education. An expensive four-year degree often signals an education earned from a prestigious institution where great value is placed on what was learned there; conversely, a bargain-priced degree from a cut-rate campus commands little in terms of respect, signals inferior learning, and has comparatively lesser value in the marketplace. The term “diploma mill” is derived from the Latin, cheapus collegium.
Finally, there is reason to be concerned about any product that’s free. It’s too easy to cite the truism that “you get what you pay for” when there are serious consequences to any free college initiative. Why would a student give his or her best effort in Calculus I if the penalty for failing the course is getting to take it over for free? (I wouldn’t want to teach that course!) Why would a student work diligently to complete his or her degree in four years if there were no additional costs for taking five, six, seven, nineteen more years to do so? If one wanted to design a strategy to drive out of business a U.S. higher education system that is envied and sought after around the globe, make it free. The predictable result is that alternatives to the “free” system would emerge. They would be costly — because they would not be tax supported — but would attract the best researchers, teachers, investment, and so on, at least in part because they would become the preferred option for students who were seeking greater challenge, higher standards, and enhanced value in their education. Separate, and unequal.
As Thomas Paine wrote “That which we achieve too easily, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only that gives everything its value.” There is great wisdom in striking the right balance between making college accessible... and dear.
First, if we make our public colleges free, taxpayers are going to have some big holes to fill. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations show just how big those holes will be.
For example, if California decided to make college free for all its incoming California resident undergraduate students next year, lost tuition revenues could top $1.4 billion (including both community colleges and public four-year campuses). In Texas, the lost tuition revenue could be around $1.2 billion. Of course, these are big states, but in much smaller Louisiana, tuition revenue losses could be around $260 million. And in Illinois, which along with Louisiana is having a horrible time funding its universities, the loss tuition revenues will be around $481 million.
These estimates are based on the assumption that free tuition would start with the incoming class and that states would have a few years to come up with the funds to cover accumulating lost tuition revenues as it admits new students each year. Since the political pressure to make college tuition-free for all students, not just new ones, will likely be far too strong to support a gradual phase in, I multiplied my estimate of the lost tuition revenues for community colleges by two and the lost tuition revenues of bachelor’s universities by four. In California, the total lost tuition revenues would be around $5 billion annually; in Texas, $4 billion; Louisiana, $800 million; and Illinois, $1.5 billion. Add the costs of educating the increasing numbers of students that would likely flock to free public institutions, and the bottom line becomes ever redder.
Since it’s unlikely that states could come up with this kind of money, either the federal government would have to ante up or, more likely, states would underfund their schools — driving down quality.
Even setting aside a scenario in which some combination of state and federal government covers the lost tuition revenue and the added costs, should college be free?
There is a large earnings premium for earning a bachelor’s degree — according to Census figures, this may amount to an average of $1 million in added lifetime earnings — and a smaller, but still substantial premium for an associate’s degree. Shouldn’t students, who will reap such large rewards, share some of the costs of such a profitable human capital investment?
Finally, free college represents a giant public subsidy to the middle class. Right now, Federal income-based Pell Grants, often coupled with state income-based aid combine so that most low income students, especially those attending community colleges, already attend free college. Making all students eligible for free college would subsidize the education of millions of middle class students who currently can and do pay for their education.
In short, free college will likely drive down the quality of higher education and subsidize middle class students who have the money to invest in their education and who will reap the earnings premium that follows.
But we should be wary of falling under the spell that simply making college free cures these chronic woes. Instead, we must first beg the much more fundamental question underlying free college proposals: what exactly are we subsidizing? What value should students and taxpayers alike expect to garner from a free ride to college?
Unfortunately, simply making college free risks perpetuating a higher education business model that is fundamentally inefficient and that delivers unpredictable value to students and society alike. Today, the vast majority of higher education institutions pursue three distinct and often incongruous business models: producing research, providing instruction, and preparing students for life and careers — all bundled together. As my colleagues Professor Clayton Christensen and Dr. Michelle Weise have noted, this results in a surge in overhead and direct labor costs, with universities dramatically increasing their administrative capacities to cover these different and conflicting value propositions. Unsurprisingly, tuition prices have ratcheted up to sustain these business models over time. By simply paying those tuition bills, free college policies will only keep unsustainable business models afloat.
And there’s another troubling inefficiency to the higher education market that free college would fail to address: the cost of a degree is different — and often grossly misaligned — from its value. Studies repeatedly show that the price tag of a degree doesn’t necessarily correlate with the value that degree bestows on a graduate — both in qualitative terms, such as long-term satisfaction among graduates, or along quantitative dimensions, like post-graduation salaries and lifelong earnings. As a result, consumers possess little insight into the actual worth of the degree that they are paying for. Free college policies only stand to further muddy already weak market signals that keep colleges from being held accountable to the outcomes they offer their graduates in the long run.
In other words, free college may allow more students to afford college, but it won't actually make college fundamentally more affordable, or a degree fundamentally more valuable. Instead, the government should put subsidies toward models of postsecondary education that tackle both access and affordability and offer predictable value in terms of long-term labor market outcomes. Supporting students to pursue postsecondary opportunities is not a bad strategy, especially to even the playing field in the knowledge economy. But we should be wary of the legacy business models and mixed outcomes that those subsidies may buoy — to the long-term detriment of students and society.
I think we have to be realistic about the willingness of the public to support additional services that people now largely pay for themselves. Conversely, the public policies we have followed over the past thirty years in transferring responsibility for most of the costs of attending college from the parent to the student generation is neither wise from an economic perspective nor sustainable. Such policies have, as well, encouraged institutions to compete for students through amenities that have unnecessarily inflated the costs of a basic college education.
Obviously, everyone likes free things, and college is really expensive. The current high cost of college results from administrative expansion, student services, campus life and more — including increasing percentages of Americans going to college. Further, the reduction in relative state support at public state colleges and universities has shifted the costs — which have to be borne by someone, unless we resort to open-air discussions with no facilities — to grants, donations by alumni and friends — and tuition.
The high student debt that consigns many students to misery for decades is genuine, but this is a problem that could be solvable without making all college free. Already many students pay virtually nothing.
But aside from the desirability of eradicating immiseration from debt, free college would encourage everyone to go. We should ask the deeper question of what college is for.
Of course, if the goal of college is informed citizenship, or genuine human flourishing, then I would be in favor of college for everyone, and supported by the collective.
But we tend to speak of college largely for the purpose of gaining a credential, emphasizing the “college premium” in terms of lifetime earnings, but this is mostly because we have stratification. Those with more schooling earn more. Even if everyone went to college, the credentials would still be unequal. Some would get further degrees; some would go to more prestigious schools. There are not enough good jobs to employ everyone, even if everyone had a college degree.
For individuals it is beneficial to have a leg up — in terms of credentials — on everyone else. But as Bryan Caplan puts it: “Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better. Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn’t encourage it.”
The somewhat chaotic and incoherent “system” of US higher education offers a dazzling heterogeneous array of options: private, public, religious; two-year, four-year; vocational and academic; tiny and gargantuan; residential, commuting, distributed, online. It is quite unlike the more centralized European systems such as in the UK and Germany, where fewer people attend a more limited form of college — called university. A degree of elitism is accepted in those societies. Germany’s polytechnical institutions are not what we usually think of as college. Japan’s nearly universal higher education brings credential inflation without greater equality. Students from prestigious schools get high-paying jobs; others may be unemployed.
When we say “college,” given the inequality of college degrees, do we mean all undergraduate educations are free? Or are some free and others cost? If, say, community college is free but costly elite college remains, we improve affordability but we may still not offer something that will allow everyone to “compete” at the same level.
Making college free would allow more people to go to college, but some would still not finish and some would still be more equal than others.
But no debt sounds great.
Community colleges are already the most affordable higher education option in the country. Here in Alabama, our community college courses cost a quarter of our state’s flagship university courses. Our flagship universities will continue to have a driving student enrollment because they have much to offer and students want to attend. Therefore it is hard to persuade trustees, chancellors, and presidents of such universities to reduce tuition given that the market in fact supports the business model. It is particularly difficult, when a university like my own alma mater, The University of Alabama, is considered a good deal. In fact, it is a “good deal” relative to the cost of other similar institutions.
The community colleges are the place we can look to solve the problem of affordability for students that desperately need a close-to-home affordable option. Right now, Alabama’s community colleges cost $125 or so per credit hour. That may sound like a bargain as compared to the cost of a flagship university, but it's still beyond the reach of many of our citizens to self-fund.
And, funding one’s own education or your child’s is an important part of the value proposition of college. College is an investment. Making it free risks cheapening it. Making it attainable is good policy. State policy makers who are interested in making real progress should enter into agreements with their community college systems to increase appropriations in exchange for commensurate reductions in tuition and fees.
If the goal of making college free is to increase the number of children from lower and middle income families who attend and graduate from college, then we should start with a discussion of why these young people are not attending or, if they attend, are dropping out. Research has shown that high-achieving low-income students make better enrollment decisions, in terms of lower cost and higher expected likelihood of graduating, when given customized college information (Hoxby and Turner). Once students arrive at college, programs that provide both financial and academic support, such as the Longhorn Opportunity Scholars at the University of Texas at Austin (Andrews, Imberman, and Lovenheim), increase a student’s likelihood of graduating and their expected future earnings. I find these targeted programs to be a far more compelling set of policies than broad attempts to make colleges free.
Given the importance of the decision and the costs to individuals, families, and taxpayers, we should spend additional resources helping young people gather the information to make better decisions. Instead of the simplistic solution of throwing money at the issue of college enrollment, what we need is a more comprehensive solution that helps low-income and first-generation college students navigate the entire process, from identifying and applying to schools through financial and academic support once enrolled.
Universal postsecondary education is not free, and the cost must be shared by the whole society. The government must pave the way to guarantee tuition payment and garner returns from human capital investment; “pay-it-forward” college funding model in Oregon is an example of income share agreement (ISA). This type of shared college funding plan is reasonable, since higher education currently provides more private benefits than social benefits and thus students have skin in the game. To make this type of plan work, however, the trends of state governments’ diminishing support for higher education and rising college tuition costs must be reversed first. Colleges and universities also must be held accountable for high-quality education that ensures desirable student learning outcomes and gainful employment; otherwise, it will be a waste of public tax money for degree mills.
Clearly, America’s edge in international brain race is slipping as Asian countries invest more heavily in higher education. There is a widening gap in terms of the percentage of college educated population between the U.S. and other industrial nations. Regarding the population of 25 to 34 year olds with at least associate degree, the U.S. has only about 46 percent (ranked 11th among all OECD nations), whereas South Korea has about 68 percent (ranked 1st). However, there are caveats. South Korea’s rapid college expansion and mass provision of higher education is not a model of universal college access because of heavy reliance on parent support and private college sector in lieu of robust government funding and oversight for public higher education. As for social investment, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
But most importantly, free higher education is an untargeted financial policy. It drains all governmental funding by proposing free tuition to those who need it as well as those who do not need it. This has two consequences: first, it prevents institutions from getting a tuition revenue from those who could pay for it – or part of it; second, it prevents the establishment of further financial aid for those who cannot afford the cost of living and opportunity cost. Free college tuition is an equalitarian policy, but it is by no mean equitable.
College should not be free: a system with tuition fees supported by stable and relevant financial aid is the most relevant option in today’s context. Decreasing state appropriations to higher education need to be used for proper financial aid for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, while institutions get needed revenue from tuition fees to sustain and improve the quality of teaching, research, and services.
A better question than “Should college be free,” however, is “Should college be made as affordable as possible to each student?” The answer to this question is an unequivocal “Yes.” One might argue that making something free makes it as affordable as possible, but from a societal perspective that is both false and misleading, as we must also take into account the cost to taxpayers of subsidizing everyone’s college education (astronomical), as well as each student’s (and their family’s) ability to pay. Assuming that there will always be a limit to the amount of money taxpayers are willing to commit toward this purpose, we must make decisions about how to allocate higher education subsidies. One way to do this would be to offer free or discounted tuition to students enrolling in certain high-demand fields (this already occurs). Another is to assess the likelihood that each economic subset of students would attend college at various levels of discounted tuition. For low-income students, a fully-subsidized college education may be necessary. Middle-income families, however, may be able to afford to pay a certain amount (say, tuition at a community college), but require assistance in paying for a university education. Students from high-income families will most likely attend college regardless of the cost, and thus it makes little sense for taxpayers to subsidize them, especially if it reduces the amount of money available to lower-income students.
Advocates of “college for free” often couch their arguments in social justice terms, arguing that until the most disadvantaged in our society have the same access to college as the most advantaged, equality is not possible. While I agree with this sentiment, making college free works against this very ideal, as it makes it possible for higher-income students to draw from the same (limited) pot of subsidies as low-income students, thus reducing the total amount of money available to help those who need it most.
Although the devilish details are far from even the negotiation stage, the current stated Hillary Clinton plan is for families with income up to $125,000 (by year 2021) to pay no tuition at in-state, four-year, public colleges and universities. Such four-year institutions with undergraduate programs, which now comprise about 664 (14%) of over 4550 US degree-granting postsecondary institutions, charge an average annual “tuition” just over $6,500, but it ranges from $70 at the College of Charleston to $17,292 at the University of Pittsburgh. The hitch in these statistics, is that there is another charge generally labeled, “required fees,” which averages $1,600 but ranges from $0 (41 of the 664 public colleges and universities) to close to $12,000. The highest required fee charge is at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, which adds an $11,973 fee charge to its very low annual tuition of $1,454. The second highest fee charge of $11,252 is for the lowest tuition institution, the College of Charleston.
But let’s assume that the term, “tuition” is being used as a shorthand for “tuition and required fees.” The average tuition and required fee cost was $8,152 for academic year 2015-16. In comparison, the total cost of these same institutions (including housing, food, transportation, books and miscellaneous charges) averages over $22,500, and ranges from $10,290 to $36,434. Thus, a free college education would still be quite costly, especially for students of limited means.
If the term “free college” is simply political speak, and the core objective is to raise the amount of public funding available to subsidize the cost of college, then we have more useful issues to debate. Who should be eligible and for how much? How do we equitably accommodate the vastly different cost structures of public education across the United States? These are questions far more worthy of our time and attention.
Note: The data cited were extracted from the US Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System 2015-16 (preliminary) Student Charges component.
So, to the question “Should college be free?” I will say no. In saying no, I am saying that I am interested to consider some principles in determining how to respond. I may not understand all of the principles that are or should be in play, and I likewise may be getting some principles wrong or applying them inappropriately. Nevertheless, I believe that policy decisions do well to be shaped by principles, acknowledging that such principles may change over time, and that not all will agree with the principles the underlie decisions.
So, what principles am I thinking of? Two “legal” principles come to mind. First, the Constitution (Tenth Amendment) seems to accord individual states the power to provide education, if it is to be provided at all. And, second, the constitutions and actions of all 50 states do indicate that the states have taken the responsibility to provide education. Of course, differences exist regarding the ways that states describe and execute their role in education. But all states have taken on education as one of many duties, to use a different word. Interestingly, not nearly all state constitutions speak to the establishment of colleges and universities, much less the extent to which they should or should not be free.
A third “cultural” principle comes to mind as well. Education is an exchange — an exchange of things like ideas, of knowledge, of resources, of values, of friendship… and of dollars. The exchange of tuition dollars is differentiated among types of institutions ($3440/year, on average, at public 2-year institutions, $9410/year, on average, at public 4-year institutions, and $32,410/year, on average, at private 4-year institutions), and is further mediated by things like family resources, scholarships/grants (including Pell), loans, and state policies. Regarding the latter, and to the original question, a state (e.g., Tennessee) may consider including subsidizing the financial exchange between students and institutions, provided that such students attend particular kinds of postsecondary institutions (i.e., 2-year institutions), and make good on the exchange (i.e., achieve academically). And, in so doing, the state is likely making a decision to have something else in its budget be less free, or free no more.
Some will, no doubt, consider these musings as a dodge. Perhaps. But, I would prefer that policy decisions have principles in mind, even though such principles may be incomplete, contested, or somehow misused. At a personal level, I’m happy for my daughter’s institution to void the bill.
On The Fence
- "Certainly, the current state of affairs is out of whack: Far too many students are burdened by loans that at best seem unfair, and at worst down right outrageous and unacceptable. But I am not that concerned about those students incurring such debt due to their own choice to attend elite private institutions and by-pass local and other state colleges and universities across the country. ... Attending such a school, to my mind, is somewhat analogous to choosing to dine at a very expensive restaurant — it’s your choice, and you decide whether it is worth the price."
Ron Scapp // Founding Director, Graduate Program in Urban and Multicultural Education, College of Mount Saint Vincent
- “As long as we have this tuition crisis, the most important thing we can do is teach all students how to be proactive, self-directed learners who can take advantage of all the learning resources that come their way. Our current system does not do a good enough job of helping students accomplish this. Too many students enter college not knowing how to take advantage of all the resources that are already provided, and as a result, they don’t graduate.”
Dale J. Stephens // Founder & CEO, UnCollege.org
We must also recognize that nothing is ever really “free.” If a student does not pay college tuition upfront, they (or another student like them) will pay it back through loans or taxes over the course of their lifetime.
From where I sit, here’s the takeaway for me: As long as we have this tuition crisis, the most important thing we can do is teach all students how to be proactive, self-directed learners who can take advantage of all the learning resources that come their way. Our current system does not do a good enough job of helping students accomplish this. Too many students enter college not knowing how to take advantage of all the resources that are already provided, and as a result, they don’t graduate.
As one of the last beneficiaries of a free education (I graduated from Queens College of the City University of New York, while it was still a tuition-free system), I am partial to extending such a policy and practice to all attending public institutions of higher education. That said, the issue is more complicated than a simple yes or no response. That’s because the debate over whether or not college should be tuition-free is connected to and part of many other issues regarding wealth and poverty, access and privilege, racism and sexism, and the very essence of what our democracy needs to sustain itself, and what it should offer its citizens.
Certainly, the current state of affairs is out of whack: Far too many students are burdened by loans that at best seem unfair, and at worst down right outrageous and unacceptable. But I am not that concerned about those students incurring such debt due to their own choice to attend elite private institutions and by-pass local and other state colleges and universities across the country. There are certainly many good reasons for attending an elite school, but I am not so concerned about that sphere of the “education market.” Such institutions have been around the longest in our nation, and while they today no longer solely cater to the rich and privileged class, they still do cater to the rich and privileged class (from all over the world). So, attending such a school, to my mind, is somewhat analogous to choosing to dine at a very expensive restaurant — it’s your choice, and you decide whether it is worth the price.
Just as I have no problem with the existence of restaurants with prix fix menus of over $250 per person (without the cost of the wine, yikes!), I have no problem of private schools costing nearly $200, 000 — your choice. But, the problem for me lies not in the existence of such luxury and privilege, but in the paucity of access to affordable decent nutrition for so many of our fellow Americans (never mind the nearly billion people starving around the world). Similarly, I have no problem with the cost of private education, but find it unacceptable that affordable public education is quickly disappearing. This seems unfair for all the obvious reasons, and perhaps ruinous to the future of democracy.
As someone growing up working-class, my education changed my life, not just my financial life. Today I am a professor at an un-prestigious, and certainly not privileged private college that serves the exact same demographic as the City University of New York (many first-generation college students, many speaking English as a second or even third language, and with not much wealth to cover the cost of their education), and serves them very well. I believe that these students should be eligible for aid and support; I believe that they should be able to benefit from the dedication of my colleagues and the very mission of the college. But I would also add that the cost difference between my institution and CUNY is marginal — and in some ways that’s the good news and the bad news for all the students. In an age when everyone views themselves as a discerning “consumer” and wants “choices,” we must, I believe, remember that education is not a product; it is a vital process of transformation — that serves the individual and the nation as a whole. Thus, while I believe that there is a good argument to be made for offering tuition-free college at public institutions, I believe that it is essential that we guarantee that college remains truly affordable. Once education is out of reach, we will soon find that so is social justice and the well-being of our democracy.
Whether college should be free requires consideration of the role of college in the lives of students and families, but also the role of higher education in the economic, social, and civic life of our nation.
College in the mid- to late twentieth century was widely regarded as a mechanism for improvement of the whole person and a means for enhancing the civic and economic prospects of the entire nation. The post-World War II implementation of the GI Bill followed by widespread access to higher education was a primary driver of economic prosperity and social integration for low-income and minority communities as well as women.
More recently, however, higher education has come to be seen by many as a commodity, the source of the most well-branded credentials you can buy to improve individual access to better jobs and socioeconomic opportunities. Little regard is paid to the role of higher education in improving the collective wellbeing of the nation.
States have drastically reduced their support for public higher education institutions, resulting in dramatic increases in tuition and fees. An increasing number of small private institutions are closing as their budgets fall to provide the support they need and the number of students they can attract goes down. Elite private institutions continue to raise tuition because of the increasing costs of what they feel they must provide to remain competitive with peer institutions.
Student debt has become an increasing problem. But some student debt can lead to higher paying jobs and is worth the investment. Much of the “bad“ student debt is attributable not to traditional colleges but to the increasing number of lightly regulated trade schools and credential providers that sprang up under the authorization of President George W. Bush’s administration. Many of these programs are for-profit entities, some of which allegedly spend more of their budgets on student recruitment than on instruction. Over 30,000 students were shut out of their higher education programs through the sudden closure of the ITT schools this month. Many of these students in the end will get little or nothing of value but will receive “free” education as the federal government will pay off many, if not most, of the student loans associated with ITT programs.
So the issue of whether college should be free boils down to a couple of considerations about how to think about what is or should be “free” in higher education. Should we make higher education tuition free or at least cheaper for individuals? This would require a commitment that we are all willing to have our government pay to educate not only our own, but other people’s children because this investment would lead to a better nation for the future. Second, should we be a little less free about which entities we allow to operate higher education programs? This would require state and federal governments to curtail some of the free market approaches that have led to so much student debt and so many disappointed students at the hands of for-profit schools.
Image: Topp_Yimgrimm / iStock.
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